What do you do when everybody says you’re someone you’re not?
Alex wants change. Massive change. More radical than you could imagine.
Her mother is not happy, in fact she’s imploding. Her dad walked out.
Alex has turned vegetarian, ditched one school, enrolled in another, thrown out her clothes. And created a new identity. An identity that changes her world.
And Alex—the other Alex—has a lot to say about it.
Alex As Well is a confronting and heartfelt story of adolescent experience—of questioning identity, discovering sexuality, navigating friendships and finding a place to belong. Alex is a strong, vulnerable, confident, shy and determined character, one you will never forget.
With the same tenderness and insight as YA stars such as John Green and David Levithan, Alyssa Brugman has crafted a knockout story about identity, sexuality and family that speaks effortlessly to a universal teen experience.
Before we get to the interview I'd like to briefly mention how Alyssa and I came to know each other. Many years back, I took a writing class and one of the assignments was to write a fan letter to an author we admired. I had recently read FINDING GRACE by Alyssa and identified so strongly with her writing style that I knew immediately that she would be the author I would write. I had never written a fan letter before and was too shy to tell her that I was an aspiring novelist so I basically just stuck with gushing about FINDING GRACE. It was such a thrill to get a ding in my inbox later that day with a very thoughtful and sweet reply from her. She was so nice and real! I told myself at that moment that if I ever got published I was going to write her back and say: REMEMBER ME? About two years later, I finally landed an agent and sold my book WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. I wrote Alyssa to tell her the good news and we've been friends and writing confidants ever since. :) What a pleasure it is for me to interview her here on the Apocalypsies blog. I really cannot express how much it means to me to be able to talk with my friend and share with you her beautiful novel ALEX AS WELL. So let's get started, shall we?
CC: Hi, Alyssa! So glad to have you on our blog today!
AB: Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my book! You and I had many productive conversations about this story back when it was just a manuscript, so it’s especially nice to be able to reflect on the finished product with you.
CC: Yes! It's amazing! I'm so, so excited to do this interview. There are no words, really. So let's jump into things! Okay, so one of the main themes of ALEX AS WELL is the idea of identity. In the broad sense, it is a coming-of-age story about being comfortable in one’s skin and finding a place to belong, something with which all readers can identify. In the specific sense, this is a story that tackles gender and sexual identity. The way Alex sees herself in that regard is complex and fascinating. Can you discuss this a bit and tell us what makes ALEX AS WELL a unique addition to LGBT literature?
AB: Subverting gender expectations, sexual awareness and agency, developing identity and a growing sense of autonomy make up so much of YA fiction, and yet somehow transsexual, transgender and intersex experiences are largely overlooked in this genre. One of the things I discovered while researching this book is that gender is not a dichotomy, but a spectrum. Alex’s experience may speak to a broader constituency than people might imagine. Along that vein, I didn’t want to focus so much on the medical or clinical nature of her circumstance, but on the evolving relationships she has with her peers and her family, and sense of self, which I think is probably common to all teens. I hoped readers would think, “I felt like that too. She’s just like me," rather than fixating on what she might or might not have going on downstairs.
CC: Yes, absolutely. This book is not about the particulars of anatomy. It is about identity and acceptance of one's self and finding acceptance and love within one's circle of peers and family. To that end, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is Alex’s relationship with her mother, Heather. It’s very complicated and while I believe that Heather is misguided and tends toward the narcissistic much of the time, she is still somehow a sympathetic character...so entirely flawed and human. Can you talk about the relationship between Alex and Heather for a moment?
AB: Alex is an unreliable narrator. There are things she doesn’t know about herself that I needed the reader to know. Initially Heather was a vehicle for providing the information, but she is unreliable too. The truth is somewhere between their testimonies. I really wanted Heather to be very present in the story, because so often parents in YA are either absent altogether, or present and totally static characters. That’s not how parenthood is. The relationship between parent and child is constantly evolving, and I suspect friction is necessary so that the parent and child will ultimately, physically (in the case of the mother) and emotionally extract themselves from each other. That’s why they can be so revolting (toddlers and teens) because you have to first get them off your hip, and then out of the house. You wouldn’t do that if the experience was peachy all the time, because the love itself is so resilient.
Many readers have reported really disliking Heather, but part of her experience is my experience as a parent. I had three toddlers while I was writing this, and I did channel some of my frustration and disappointment with parenthood into her character. I often (still now) go to bed thinking, “I’m doing it all wrong! I shouted all day long. Tomorrow I will do craft, and bake, and sing songs, and cook only organic vegetables.” And then I wake up and my children throw food at me, and fight, and destroy things that are precious to me, and I think, “No, no, it’s not me, it’s YOU!” Heather is a much more exaggerated version of that experience. I have always found writing a terrific way to channel mixed emotions, disappointment or confusion that I might feel about totally unrelated things into something creative and useful. It’s the thread from which I weave the tapestry.
CC: Good to know that I'm not the only mom out there beating herself up every night. :) Parenthood is wonderful but it is no around-the-clock picnic, for sure. It's HARD!
Okay, from a writerly standpoint, there are some interesting things going on in this story. You break what is often referred to as “the fourth wall” many times to address the reader directly. Then while the story is primarily told in Alex’s first-person perspective, Heather gets to speak in first-person throughout the book, too. The parental first-person is not something often seen in YA literature. Can you talk about those artistic choices a bit?
AB: I assigned a narratee (a ‘you’) in this novel because it began as an exercise in narrative strategies for overcoming unreliable narration. Assigning a narratee lets the reader know that Alex knows she is being watched, and therefore she’s only going to share the information that she wants to share, which means there will be some self-denial, but also omissions in the testimony she gives because she doesn’t want the reader to judge her. Heather is being observed too, but in a different way. Her commentary is more of a confession than Alex’s. She’s not charming. I made her dialogue peppered with typos and grammatical errors, because she is just emoting, without self-editing. It’s much more raw than Alex.
If you will indulge me, here is an example of Alex being charming:
But I’m not going to tell you any more about that because you’re already feeling sorry for me, and I don’t want that to tip over into something else… like irritation. Instead I am going to tell you something good about me.
I can clap really fast.
Imagine the fastest clapping ever, well I can do that. I can do six or seven claps in a second. I’m like a hummingbird. My hands are just a total blur. You’re trying it right now, aren’t you? Ok, so maybe you can do five claps in one second, but can you do six or seven claps a second every second for a whole minute? No, you can’t, because that takes a special aptitude and a dogged commitment to fostering it.
No, I’m not going to do it right now, because there are other kids who have hopped off the train at the same station, wearing the same uniform as me. I follow them through the big sandstone gates, smiling my head off at the giant girl on the billboard out the front, because she could be me. I could be her.
There are good things about me. There are probably as many good things as there are bad things. I am pretty as a girl. I’m really tall as a girl. I bet I could arm-wrestle any chick here, and half the guys too.
And here is Heather being raw:
And then last night Alex says to us, just sitting there at dinner. I’m a girl. Just like that. Three words.
And. My husband explodes at me. I couldn’t stop crying. My husband packs up a suitcase and he just walks out. He’s gone to his borhters place. I’m still crying now.
I just can’t handle it. I look at Alex and I don’t think I love him. I know that if we had a normal child our lives would be so much better. It’s not his fault that he was born like this, but it is his fault that my husband and I have not had the life we dreamed of.
I want to have a Christmas where I don’t go around the shops looking for non-gender specific toys (which are totally impossible to find) and watching his face as his opens the presents for clues as to whether his hormone balance is right. That’s not the spirit of Christmas, that’s hell.
I am so angry, and I am angry with Alex, and I don’t know how to move beyond it. I know that makes me a bad mother and a bad person. It’s also unfair that my husband is rhe one that gets to move out and have a holiday from this life. I am at the end of my tether. I want to have the holiday from my life. I’m ready to pack a suitcase and get on a plane, and never come back again.
These characters are both aware of a ‘you’, but they are reacting quite differently to it.
CC: I'm going to admit this now to you and the world...when I read the early manuscript of ALEX AS WELL and then again when I read the final book, I put it down mid-page and totally tried the fast clapping. (Apocalypsies readers...you're doing it right now, too, aren't you? You're fast clapping right now, aren't you?) Also, I found the typos in Heather's testimonies to be very in tune with the character and her state of mind. I really feel that the vast majority of readers are insightful enough to "get it" and will not chalk the typos up to lazy copy-editing. (For those of you who take issue with the typos, they're Heather's typos, not Alyssa's. Dig deeper, man...)
Okay....moving on. ;)
Having read some of your other young adult books FINDING GRACE, WALKING NAKED, and SOLO, one of your trademark strengths as a writer is your quirky sense of humor. Your characters are really, really funny, Alyssa. Do you have a favorite humorous passage from ALEX AS WELL that you would like to share with us?
AB: Sometimes young adult characters in YA books are whiney and self-obsessed, and after you read the first ten pages you want to slap them. It is necessary for them to be this way so that you have an arc, and something to grow into. I’ve always used humour as a way of making them more likable initially, so that the reader has a reason to stick with them.
In this book I have tried to make Alex banter with the reader all along the way, a kind of light, coasting sort of humour. She’s like a talk show host interviewing herself – asking the probing questions, and then giving the answers that are the truth (her truth) but still paint her in the most flattering light. Much of it is not so funny out of context, but here is a small example of the type of strategy I’m talking about.
I sit with Sierra in visual art. We’re making a hen out of clay. The teacher says my hen isn’t very good. Apparently Sierra’s is a masterpiece. I don’t really understand why her hen is better than mine.
This one kid didn’t even make a hen, he just made the letters to spell out, squawk! When the teacher asked what he was doing, he said, ‘subverting the paradigm’.
You could see her frozen with indecision, because she wasn’t sure if it was really clever, or if he was taking the piss. She gave him six out of ten, a bet each way, the same mark as me, and I actually made the chook like I was asked.
I think about reminding the art teacher about that gallery that literally exhibited the work of a two-year-old, but I don’t think that’s going to make her like my hen any better.
‘It’s stupid and arbitrary,’ Sierra whispers to me, but secretly she’s pleased. I can tell by the sparkle in her eye and the sly way she smiles at her hen when she thinks I’m not looking.
My hen rocks, so I don’t care what the teacher thinks. And I’m subverting the paradigm in ways she can’t even imagine.
We are art, says Alex.
CC: Thank you so much for stopping by The Apocalypsies, my friend. Truly, it was an honor.
AB: Thank you for inviting me! I’ve always enjoyed talking about writing with you, Colleen! I hope your blog readers have found it interesting too. (Just declaring an interest for the readers who might not already know, I have only a few trusted beta-readers for my manuscripts, and Colleen has always provided me with acute insights. She has a good eye, and good instincts, which I appreciate! So thank YOU.)
CC: <3 <3 <3
Please check out ALEX AS WELL by visiting the publisher's website here. You can also find out more about Alyssa's other critically-acclaimed young adult novels by visiting her Goodreads author page.
Alyssa Brugman was born in Rathmines in New South Wales in 1974. She has written several books for young adults including Finding Grace, which was shortlisted for the Printz Award, and Walking Naked, which was a CBCA honour book. She lives in the Hunter Valley with her partner and their children.